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Incorporating Social Media Into Your Exercises #SMEM

Post by: Kim Stephens


Social media is now a common tool emergency management and response organizations turn to in order to interact with the public before, during and after a disaster event. However, testing the use of social media during exercises has proven to be problematic. Agencies are reluctant to use their own social accounts in a live environment because they do not want to confuse or scare their followers with exercise updates; fake social platforms often fall-flat in terms of realism.  In today’s post, I want to suggest a third alternative.

Using Real but Unidentifiable Accounts

You can provide an exercise environment that allows participants to engage with content online, with social platforms agencies use everyday. This can be done by utilizing real but unidentifiable social media accounts in a closed or semi-closed environment (e.g. Twitter protected accounts and Facebook groups marked as private, closed or secret, and a blog site set up with disabled search engine indexing). In a recent exercise, my team and I employed a total of 7 different types of online platforms in order to accomplish our goal of providing as realistic as possible news and social environment. However, for the purposes of this post, I would like to focus on the processes we used for Twitter, Facebook and WordPress.

Protected Twitter Accounts


Our team used protected Twitter accounts to provide participants the ability to operate in a social platform they were used to and it gave us the ability to limit access.  “Accounts with protected Tweets require manual approval of each and every person who may view that account’s Tweets”  ( Twitter states the following:

When you protect your Tweets, the following restrictions are put in place:
  • People will have to request to follow you; each follow request will need approval. Learn more.
  • Your Tweets will only be visible to users you’ve approved.
  • Others will not be able to retweet or quote your Tweets.
  • Protected Tweets will not appear in Google search; protected Tweets will only be searchable on Twitter by the account holder and approved followers.
  • @Replies you send to people who aren’t following you will not be seen by those users (because you have not given them permission to see your Tweets).
  • You cannot share permanent links to your Tweets with anyone other than your approved followers.

For the exercise, we took the following steps:

  • Created numerous fake protected accounts for the simulation cell and for the participants (we also had to create new Google accounts to provide an email address);
  • We ensured all pre-created protected accounts followed each other;
  • Other approved exercise participants were allowed to follow the accounts at the start of the exercise;
  • Content was developed in advance and pre-scheduled based on the exercise timeline, however, the simulation cell followed the stream and interacted with the participants in order to push them to achieve the desired outcome.

There are some pros and cons to using protected Twitter accounts versus a simulated Twitter environment, or unprotected accounts:


  • Real Twitter user-interface
  • Users saw their own stream as well as exercise content, which added realism
  • People did not have to be re-trained on how to use the platform
  • Content never was accidentally released into the agency’s real stream.


  • Cannot ReTweet a protected Tweet
  • If exercise participants (other than those designated to interact with the stream) wanted to see the content they had to have their own Twitter account. They were also reminded to “view only”.

Closed Facebook Groups

Facebook was actually quite easy to use in a closed environment because closed groups are fairly common. To take full advantage of this feature, we did the following:

  • Created a closed group and invited designated participants via email;
  • Wrote content in advance and populated the page based on the scenario timeline. As with Twitter,  the sim-cell interacted with the participants “live” in order to provide realism to the exercise environment.


  • Real Facebook user-interface
  • People did not have to be re-trained on how to use the platform
  • Content could not accidentally be released into the agency’s real stream.
  • Content posted in a closed group does NOT show up on the user’s personal/public timeline.


  • If an exercise participant wanted to view the content they had to have their own personal Facebook account.
  • Fake Facebook accounts are not as easy to establish, so the sim-cell also used their own personal accounts.  By doing this, however, the timeline of the FB page can look a little lop-sided and less realistic. For large exercises, this issue could be addressed by simply adding the entire sim-cell team for the exercise to the FB Group and asking them to post pre-scripted content.


A common complaint of exercise participants is that they get lost in the scenario. Scenario-time jumps and fast paced injects can mean that participants are aware of their own ESF actions, but often don’t have the situational awareness provided during real events by news and social media, which is often displayed in EOCs on large screens. In order to help address this issue, we utilized a blog site as a hub for all information. (I should note that during the exercise we also used a Flickr stream to broadcast to the EOC over 500 scenario-specific images, displayed multiple YouTube videos we created to portray the scenario, and provided text messages with scenario weather information and updates directly to everyone’s cell phone.)

The blog site was open to anyone who knew the URL, but we did limit the site visibility by selecting the option available in to discourage search engines from indexing the site.  We did not have any issues regarding information getting released to the public or news media.

We did the following:

  • An exercise-specific blog served as a foundation for the exercise for everyone to view the situation manual and other relevant documents including maps, etc.
  • During the exercise, participants were encouraged to use the blog to post content they were developing including press releases, updates from their ESF (e.g. road closures), shelter locations, etc.


  • Served as the main site for “exercise” situational awareness. Allowed everyone to understand what was happening on the timeline.


  • Developing content for a blog can be much more time consuming than writing Tweets and Facebook posts since stories versus sentences have to be developed. However, it should be noted, news stories from real-world disaster events make great starting points.

I hope this post is helpful for anyone interested in using social during their next exercise. If you have any questions, please, let me know.

Information Design: Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

Post by: Kim Stephens

Looking back on the year, there was one  article that stood out because of its clear use of graphics and imagery to communicate risk information. During the summer of 2013, the Washington Post published a short online report about the hazards at the Potomac River Gorge titled “The Perils at Great Falls.” This spot in the river is a deadly place where 27 people have died since 2001.  Standing on the banks, it looks deceptively calm, but it is what people don’t see on the surface that can kill–erratic currents, jagged cracks, potholes and uneven terrain can trap swimmers.  The article explained those hazards with imagery that eliminated the need to read even one word.  Some commented that the piece was the definition of information design: “…the practice of presenting information in a way that fosters efficient and effective understanding of it.”  (Wikipedia)

Screenshot 2013-12-12 08.32.32

Each of the major hazards in the river were given a graphical representation. In the image above the person is shown fishing off the bank: water rises rapidly and unexpectedly, sweeping him away. I have captured a screenshot, but the original graphic is animated.

The image below shows hazards beneath the water and on the banks–cliffs that tempt people to jump in, and varied terrain underwater that can kill if you dive in the wrong spot.

Screenshot 2013-12-12 08.33.08

The Dreaded Fact Sheet
Too often,  in the world of emergency management, images are occasionally included–if one can be dredged up, but they are usually not the focus of the message delivery. Below is a typical “dangers of [insert-risk-here]” pdf’d fact sheet intended for general public consumption. One glance and I can tell you how many people have read it..not many. I understand why this happens. There is a concern that if information is boiled down to just a few words and images, then that one key item will be left out. This begs the question: how effective are long and involved explanations if the intended audience won’t take the time to read them?

Screenshot 2013-12-12 09.03.40

 Images and Social Media

Luckily, communicating with the public has gotten easier–almost everyone is connected to the internet (81%) and a large portion of our audience  has smart phones in their pockets (over 60% as of July, 2013). Yet, I still see some EMA websites with risk information readily available–as long as you download the pdf.

However, as emergency management organizations become more comfortable with social media communications,  some have adopted the culture that includes heavy use of imagery.  Pinterest, for instance, is a great example of a social platform almost solely devoted to communicating via images. As an example, here’s the same “flood-water-can-be-dangerous message” on the Maryland Emergency Management Agency’s Pinterest page.

Screenshot 2013-12-12 09.27.41

Twitter, surprisingly, is also a social platform where the use of images is key to building audiences and engagement. Recently the company added inline viewing of pictures and video, making it yet another social network where the image is king. In fact, according to Bufferapp, research even prior to this change showed that Tweets using links were 94% more likely to be Retweeted. Data analysis also suggests that Tweets with images also are more likely to receive clicks in the first place.

Following my own advice, I will keep this short, but for 2014 I think the trend of communicating risk and preparedness information to the public by using images and graphics will continue to be vital.  We have to present information in a way that our audiences want to receive it, not in the way that is most convenient–even if uploading a PDF is handy.

What do you think?

#SMEMChat Makes it to Congress

Post by: Kim Stephens

Patrice Cloutier tweeted:

And I’d have to answer…yes!

When the Social Media and Emergency Management #SMEM community started chatting at 12:30EST every Friday almost two years ago, we knew we were on to something. That day, Craig Fugate, the Director of FEMA, joined in–causing those of us who had organized the chat to literally jump up and down in our offices. It was pretty obvious that indeed we had started something that could be quite good.

Flash forward a couple of years, and in order to prepare for the Congressional Hearing that took place today (June 4, 2013) some of the staff for Congress Woman Susan Brooks asked if they could join in the #smemchat. In fact, what the staffers asked Heather Blanchard and I specifically was: “We want to ask you about your Friday activities.” I honestly had to think twice before answering that!  They wanted to join in the chat so that they could talk to practitioners directly, and it appears that the chat–as well as those who participated–made an impression. A couple of funny notes–for one, anyone can join in the chat–permission to participate is never required; and two, no one person or group is responsible for organizing the chat on a weekly basis (some people are under the impression that it is run by FEMA, but that can’t be farther from the truth). Anyone can join in, and anyone can ask questions. I would have to add one caveat: don’t try to sell a product–even a high tech social media gadget–to this group during the chat. It is a very bad idea.

During the Hearing, Ms. Brooks cited the chat as a reference–it helped her understand what the emergency management community was interested in learning from the private sector witnesses. The chats are always a place to get a good understanding of what others are thinking and doing across the country related to social media–which is why it has persisted for so long.

Very cool.

The Hearing was titled: “Subcommittee Hearing: Emergency MGMT 2.0: How #SocialMedia & New Tech are Transforming Preparedness, Response, & Recovery #Disasters #Part1 #Privatesector.” There are a whole lot of hashtags in that title! Below are the witnesses that testified today along with links to their written testimony.

Mr. Matthew Stepka
Vice President
Witness Statement [PDF]

Mr. Jason Payne
Philanthropy Engineering Team Lead
Palantir Technologies
Witness Statement [PDF]

Mr. Michael Beckerman
President and CEO
The Internet Association
Witness Statement [PDF]
Witness Truth in Testimony [PDF]

Mr. Jorge L. Cardenas
Vice President
Asset Management and Centralized Services
Public Service Enterprise Group, Inc.
Witness Statement [PDF]

Research from Social Web Disaster Management Conference

Below are the papers from the “SWDM’12” Workshop (Social Web for Disaster Management) which took place in Lyon, France.  These are all academic papers. Thanks to @cwardell for calling my attention to them.

Information Cascades in Social Media in Response to a Crisis: A Preliminary Model and a Case Study (Page 653)
Cindy Hui, Yulia Tyshchuk, William Wallace, Malik Magdon-Ismail, Mark Goldberg

User Community Reconstruction Using Sampled Microblogging Data (Page 657)
Miki Enoki, Yohei Ikawa, Raymond Rudy

Towards Situational Pattern Mining from Microblogging Activity (Page 661)
Nathan Gnanasambandam, Keith Thompson, Ion Ho, Sarah Lam, Sang Won Yoon

Mining Conversations of Geographically Changing Users (Page 667)
Liam McNamara, Christian Rohner

Characterization of Social Media Response to Natural Disasters (Page 671)
Seema Nagar, Aaditeshwar Seth, Anupam Joshi

Rumor Spreading and Inoculation of Nodes in Complex Networks (Page 675)
Anurag Singh, Yatindra Singh

Bursty Event Detection from Text Streams for Disaster Management (Page 679)
Sungjun Lee, Sangjin Lee, Kwanho Kim, Jonghun Park

Automatic Sub-Event Detection in Emergency Management Using Social Media (Page 683)
Daniela Pohl, Abdelhamid Bouchachia, Hermann Hellwagner

Location Inference Using Microblog Messages (Page 687)
Yohei Ikawa, Miki Enoki, Michiaki Tatsubori

SocialEMIS: Improving Emergency Preparedness Through Collaboration (Page 691)
Ouejdane Mejri, Pierluigi Plebani

Emergency Situation Awareness from Twitter for Crisis Management (Page 695)
Mark Cameron, Robert Power, Bella Robinson, Jie Yin

MECA: Mobile Edge Capture and Analysis Middleware for Social Sensing Applications (Page 699)
Fan Ye, Raghu Ganti, Raheleh Dimaghani, Keith Grueneberg, Seraphin Calo

The Use of Social Media within the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) (Page 703)
Beate Stollberg, Tom de Groeve

Evaluating the Impact of Incorporating Information from Social Media Streams in Disaster Relief Routing (Page 707)
Ashlea Milburn, Clarence Wardell

Tweeting about the Tsunami? – Mining Twitter for Information on the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami (Page 709)
Akiko Murakami, Tetsuya Nasukawa

Mass and Social Media Corpus Analysis after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (Page 711)
Shosuke Sato, Michiaki Tatsubori, Fumihiko Imamura

Social Media and SMS in the Haiti Earthquake (Page 713)
Julie Dugdale, Bartel Van de Walle, Corinna Koeppinghoff

Social Web in Disaster Archives (Page 715)
Michiaki Tatsubori, Hideo Watanabe, Akihiro Shibayama, Shosuke Sato, Fumihiko Imamura

Social Networking Bill of Rights Info-graphic

Not sure why this is the week of the info graphic, but here is another one for you. This graphic comes from and describes the multitude of concerns around the issue of people being asked to give permission to employers or educational institutions for access to their personal social media profiles.

Social Networking Bill of Rights
Via: Online Background Check Resource

Instagram: Instant Billionaire Infographic

This fun info-graphic explains the rise of Instagram and Facebook’s recent purchase of the company. Thanks to Tony Shin @ohtinytony who sent this to me.
Purchase of Instagram
Created by: Online MBA Programs

“Information Aid”: As important to disaster survivors as food

Post by: Kim Stephens

After a disaster, the flow of information on social networks is often thought of and discussed in terms of what is coming from the impacted community. We debate at length the value of this content, its veracity and how the first responder community could or should use this type of data. However, what is not discussed as often is the information being provided to the survivors and its impact on their recovery.

Social media have democratized the ability for people to provide what Patrick Meier calls “information aid” or  “information relief” to impacted communities (it is his notion that information is as important as food). This in turn has created a new kind of volunteer, a social media “content curator”.  A study in Australia, published by the Australian Journal of Emergency Management,  looked at this type of activity after the January 2011 flooding and cyclone events and found that citizens who start community-based social media pages (particularly facebook in this example) act as filters and amplifiers of official information for those that were impacted (see the example of this from Missouri). They conclude that not only does this type of activity help provide survivors with timely public safety related information but also enables a sense of “connectedness…both to loved ones and to the broader community, providing reassurance, support and routes to assistance.” They call this  “psychological first aid” which aims to “reduce initial distress, meet current needs, promote flexible coping and encourage adjustment.” See this article for more info about psychological first aid. Their study is one of the first of its kind to look at the role of social media in this capacity and they found that people not only relied on these community pages for information, but that it did make them feel connected to others, encouraged by help given, and hopeful. Of note, the responses for feeling “suspicious or mistrustful of the information” were very low (4 and 5 %).

Content Curators

Although this type of volunteer is starting to become more formalized with efforts by organizations such as the Standby Crisis Task Force, CrisisCommons, and Humanity Road, it also can happen in a very spontaneous and, at first, unorganized manner with a person simply starting a Facebook fan page at the outset of a disaster. This example repeated itself again and again this year, and is best exemplified by the 18 year old girl that started a Facebook page in Monson, Massachusetts while still hunkered down in her basement as a tornado passed overhead. The page was titled simply “Monson Tornado Watch.” It grew to be one of the main sources of information for their town’s citizens as  volunteer organizations and regular citizens alike embraced it as a place to post any and all information they could find regarding response and recovery activities. Very quickly, one-fourth of the entire population became a “fan.” This page is still up and continues to be a place where people congregate virtually to provide and find information about recovery, as well as a place to connect and support each other.

Another great example of this type of social media spontaneous content curator  is from Joplin, Missouri, where many different people and groups started community-based pages with the intention of amplifying official information for survivors. One  facebook page, “Joplin Tornado Info” or JTI , even resulted in a guide: “Using social media in disasters“. JTI was started by a mother and daughter team with no public information or emergency management background. However, they understood the need for standard operating procedures, which they developed and detail in the guide.  Although the guide does not address the psychological reason behind the desire to start this type of facebook page, they do state that they simply wanted  “to be a clearinghouse for information, aid communication, and resources, not to champion any specific organization.”

Another reason their efforts were successful was due to their understanding of the scope of information they should be providing. “Ideally, a page covers a single  affected community.  Otherwise,  the information to be gathered and communicated  becomes  impossible to provide in a meaningful way to your  audience.” They also understood that people were often accessing this information on their smart-phones, sometimes while on their property cleaning up–not sitting at a computer watching the social stream. Therefore, their strategy was to repost vital contnet so that it didn’t get lost. “Timelines move fast, so reposting the same information during the day is a good idea.”

In conclusion, as emergency management organizations grapple with how to deal with this type of spontaneous volunteer, it is worth keeping in mind  what the authors of the Australian study found:

“…social media in this context is not to replace face-to-face support or contact, or to replace official warning services, but it can expand capacity to deliver information, extend the reach of official messages and limit the psychological damage caused by rumours and sensationalised media reporting. A mix and balance of official and informal information sources and communication channels is likely to be the best way to enhance emergency management capability.

Empowering individuals and communities to help themselves through provision of accurate, timely and relevant information and a mechanism to connect with others are fundamental needs that social media can deliver. The dynamic and organic nature of social media is such that pages and sites take on a life of their own. Self-regulation and careful administration are elements that serve to ensure that the sites that succeed are those that listen and support the needs of their users.